Is forgiveness prior to repentance? This was one of the critical questions Professor James B. Torrance of Scotland (my professor in theology) used to raise to his students. It was, of course, a question calculated to stop us in our tracks and to force us to reflect upon some of our assumptions about the heart of God the Father and the reconciling work Christ. I am not sure that I ever heard anyone answer ‘yes,’ at least not before they heard Professor Torrance lecture on the subject. Torrance’s abiding point was that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and is to be proclaimed as such to the world.
Two of Torrance’s main influences on this point were John Calvin and Thomas Erskine (see his book, The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel, in the ‘essays’ section on our web site). Calvin himself says that “a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace” (Institutes, III.2). Yet how is one to recognize God’s grace if it is not proclaimed to him or her as a fact rather than a conditional promise?
Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was somewhat disturbed by my simple declaration that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2COR 5:19) and by the fact that I turned to the folks gathered at our meeting and declared that all without exception had been forgiven and embraced by the Father himself. In the conversation afterwards, I asked the young man, ‘what is the gospel?’ ‘what do you tell people to believe?’ ‘what is the good news?’ He answered, ‘I tell people to believe in Jesus.’ I then asked, ‘believe in what about Jesus?’ His response was telling, ‘I tell people that if they repent and believe in Jesus, they will be forgiven.’ ‘So,’ I said, ‘the object of our faith is not Jesus and our salvation in him, but the possibility that we can be forgiven, if we repent and believe in Jesus. So we are summoned to believe in a Jesus who may be our savior if we repent and believe in him correctly, and in doing so (which we can’t) we actually make him the savior?’
Either we believe in the fact of our forgiveness in Jesus, and thus have something real to believe in, or we believe in the possibility of our forgiveness, and thus believe in whatever it is (our faith, repentance or goodness) that makes the possibility a reality.
The gospel is not the news of what can be if we make it so; it is the news of what is, of what God has established in Christ. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself.’ Torrance, Calvin and Erskine were right, forgiveness is prior to repentance, and indeed, prior to faith. For without the fact that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ there is nothing real to believe. And without the proclamation of this truth as truth we give people nothing to believe in except themselves and the existential power of their own faith and self-energized repentance.
Are we really afraid that there is someone out there who is not supposed to hear that they are forgiven, embraced and included, and thus may get into heaven without God’s permission?